A conversation with William Dilworth
Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather, individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating. Which is not to say that emergence happens once and for all, as an event or as a process that takes place according to some external measure of space and of time, but rather that time and space, like matter and meaning, come into existence, are iteratively reconfigured through each intra-action, thereby making it impossible to differentiate in any absolute sense between creation and renewal, beginning and returning, continuity and discontinuity, here and there, past and
—Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway
I met William Dilworth (AKA Bill), the caretaker of Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room, in SoHo, at one of the Dia Art Foundation, some weeks before the end of the season that precedes its summer closing period, which lasts three months.
The self-proclaimed “Keeper of Earth and Time”—as you can read on his business card—has performed his caretaker duty of watering and raking 97 cubic meters of earth for over thirty-two years.
For this interview exceptionally, Dilworth let me into his personal studio in the back of the Earth Room and discussed decades of artistic practice that range from the CountMark drawing series—automatic writing marks made to count the number of daily Earth Room visitors—to textured wall interventions and paintings made using his feet.
Departing from the Spinozian question “what can a body do?”, I would like to reflect on the primacy of laborers as active agents by affirming the power of workers first and understanding the shifts in the capitalist mode of production primarily as responses to class struggle, and therefore reckoning imagination as the central field for social transformation.
In a quest for social justice, solidarity and economic parity as collaborative forms of operating in the contemporary world, I take on Dilworth’s case as an example of retaliation against the current economic system, as it generates new spaces of insurgency in which we are “no longer conceived as a passive object of alienation, but instead as the active subject of a refusal capable of building a community starting out from its estrangement from the interests of capitalistic society”, and consequently building the ultimately human relationship.
William Dilworth (WMD): Do we talk about how I first got this job?
Andreia Santana (AS): That was one of the first questions! How did you arrive here?
WMD: I started working for Dia Art Foundation in 1979! I first had a job of sweeping the basement stairs once a week at the Dream House. Eventually, I got involved with La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s work, and became the person who built things and fabricated some of her artworks. It was fun to think that as soon as you arrive in New York you’re in a Dream House! It almost felt like the Dream House was ours. I was lucky, but it came the day I knew that I was much more involved in their artwork than I was comfortable to be. In the end, I didn’t want to continue making someone else’s art. One day I was with a friend looking at some pipes here in the street and I asked about this job. Shortly after, it opened up and they offered it to me. One of the reasons I took it was because it came with this space too.
I wanted to find myself in a position where I could make art without having to promote it, at the same time that I was getting paid. Back in the day, there weren’t so many visitors coming to the Earth Room, so I could be in the back doing my art for hours, but then over time it got busy.
AS: Do you have regular visitors coming to the Earth Room to see your work?
WMD: I told my daughter you were coming because she noticed that the studio door was open. She knows that is unusual, because my habit for most of my time here was to keep this discreet. Everyone at Dia knows about it, but I never wanted to step forward. I didn't want that to become a concern.
AS: I enjoy this quality in your work of being protected from permanent attention, demands or any sorts of pressures. I was looking at your intervention on the studio walls, hidden away from the public.
WMD: They’re renovating this space after next season; this wall piece will be destroyed. One of the reasons that they're going to do the renovation is so they can stay open in the entire summer.
AS: How do you see that change?
WMD: I’m glad to have been the person that evolved in this original incarnation. I've always felt that closing for three months was healthy for everybody. Even for the Earth Room! I think if it's open year-round it is like what happened at the Met when they used to have a day off. Now, pre- and post-pandemic, it is open seven days a week, and it just takes the air out. I sense a feeling of relentlessness that I don't think is the best. I've always thought that, by being laid off in the summers, I could cut loose from everything.
AS: If you think about the Earth Room as an installation, it makes sense. These breaks are crucial for the earth to rest—it’s called fallow, I think.
WMD: Time out has been a big part of that. But that's a curious thing you say about working in a way that you are alluding to the notion of almost purposefully stepping away from the public.
AS: Some artists would even be public but keep a certain kind of work hidden from the outside, as if it's a special way to protect it. So it can grow in a certain way.
WMD: My art all comes from the same place, but there could visually be a lot of difference. But I've never been obliged to brand myself in any way because I don't have to present myself publicly, and it has been an incredible freedom.
AS: Can you explain what's the function of the caretaker of the Earth Room?
WMD: When I got the job, the person that was here was left in a hurry, so there was no transition. I came on site and I found a couple of rakes. One was a short tine rake, and the other was a cultivator. I just grabbed the cultivator because, when I came on to it, it was my feeling that it was too flat. My job was to come, maintain the earth, water it, and keep it looking like the day it was installed.
Dia was never rigid in its approach, and even Walter De Maria himself was flexible about his artwork. I thought about giving it some texture in a hope to make it look more like earth. And, as long as no one protested, I thought that's fine. Walter eventually came in—it took eight years for him to come. He said he had a block of some sort, even though he lived in the neighborhood. We eventually became friends. The fact that Walter was comfortable with things was his way of agreeing to them. So the texture changed, the lights went off. There has been an evolution to the space where the goal was to present and preserve. So over these 32 years the caring of it has evolved. It's not so much a question of how to do it but what you find is necessary to keep it relatively unchanged. We've allowed it to show its age, but it's not changed when you compare it to what's going on outside. This is the radical thing—how much it's unchanged!
AS: Is every human trace erased?
WMD: Yes and no. They're not visible. I mean, the lines are there, and I used to make the line against the wall with the rake. And I found, as I continued to do it, that I was making that line with my hand. That's the human trace that wouldn't be identified. But you're right, it's not meant to be seen as tracks or traces.
AS: At the same time, this natural quality of living and preservation made me think about Japanese Zen gardens. Do you relate to that?
WMD: I think it's one of the things that drove me to the job. I realized I could be in a place where there was no other employee, that I could become monkish in a way that I could attend to this earth in a certain way. I had that effect on. And it's a continuous effect. There is the same kind of intimacy between the earth and I—something that I didn't think I could have in New York City.
AS: I felt that! You enter the building, you close the door, and your pace immediately slows down. And the earth helps absorb the sounds, it’s very silent.
WMD: It's known to be one of the quietest places in the city.
AS: I think this installation is transcendental even for the people who are dealing nowadays with ecological concerns in art. Recently, there was an exhibition on how humans feel towards nature; it's almost like there's this complex of the aquarium because everything is framed. Although the Earth Room is framed by the measures of the building, it seems to overcome these boundaries. I feel that I have more of a deeper relationship to nature here than I have in any other park in the city, in the sense that here there are fewer distractions, noises or human activities. There’s something about this work that keeps coming up to face such concerns in contemporary art, towards embracing new relationships with nature.
WMD: I think in the context you're describing, as information changes in the world, this undefined nature remains open to that shift. You speak about a couple things. One, the ecological impetus that is becoming increasingly important to all of us in the world. The other is just being able to reinterpret both cases by context and just choose the interpretation. The validity is there because Walter left it open to all. I think that, conceptually, that openness corresponds to the openness of hearts. I mean it's not so framed. You get the feeling he just brought in as much as he could. And anymore would have blown the windows out. The idea was to fill the space and not so much to compose with earth, but just let the earth be there. It’s a visceral type of response that is almost like the ancient instinct of ours to relate to the earth as something fundamental and necessary.
AS: You have been in the Earth Room since 1989. Do you feel your relationship with it evolved? Or were there moments where it was just a job?
WMD: No, I never disliked it. I think a lot of people get into art and they need to come up with an identifiable artwork, brand, and market themselves so that they say who they are. This place allows me an identification that I was comfortable with—to the detriment of the art, because my work does pile up and doesn't much go anywhere, but to no detriment to me. It's just grown. And that's because of the time I've been here; I’m 66. It's just the quality of accrued time. But I've never thought it was just a job; I've always treated it as a personal sanctuary.
AS: There was a correlation between some of your values or way of believing in art and this work, right?
WMD: It’s been a great thing to have this space. This kind of psychological osmosis where there's no way you can deny the influence. This wall work here was in my plan originally to cover this whole space, like my version of the Earth Room inside the Earth Room.
AS: So when did you feel that the Earth Room was somehow contaminating your practice?
WMD: The minute I took the job, I knew that this space would allow me to live the way I wanted to, and that affects the way you work. I achieved maximum freedom because I didn't have to sell art. So I knew the influence of it would flood into my practice. For the first 10 years, I only made drawings, and they would just move from one wall to the next. And it might have to do with the fact that I was relating to that space and becoming saturated by its proportions. I treated this not so much as a studio, but as an enlargement space of my brain where these joints would just move. And it was like words, which you can bind in different ways, so it was a way to let the space speak back to me as a thing that I could listen to.
AS: But by drawings do you mean the ones you make to count the visitors? You called it the CountMark series.
WMD: Those happened later. I originally started to click, click, click because we need a number for fundraising purposes. Click, click, click; after a couple years in that, it seemed to me I needed to find a better way. And that's how that started. You can see the early pilot books are smaller, because in the early days there were fewer people coming in, and they fit on a smaller page, but then it got busy and the books became bigger. Those Countmarks are a world themselves, telling stories of days. And that is a bridge between what I think of as making art and what the Earth Room is.
AS: What about the way you mark them? You give different intensities to it in a way you can read the symbols, right?
WMD: I’m not trying to make portraits, but there is a mark that is laid out on the page, like a map. I can tell you approximately what time that mark corresponds. I can tell you how many people were in the room just by the joined marks, so they are readable. But I'm not trying to picture anyone, I'm just trying to record their presence
AS: I had the feeling that these drawings built a bridge to the work of Marian Zezeela. You said you've also worked for her, and there's a moment in one interview when you affirm that you're fond of her practice. Somehow I enjoy how these marks also bring back that time.
WMD: You saw it more clearly than I did, because I was working for them from late 1979 into 1986. And I think you're right, but I was just absorbing it and not seeing it.
AS: I think they are different, but it feels like a small amount of memory that carries something that you love and keep from people and places as an activity of caring. This is very present in your work, which is beautiful. Another thing that I want to bring up is, I saw a film somewhere in which you’re painting using your feet. I don't know to what extent these imprints are also related to the work you do here in the Earth Room.
ADM: We all have our habits of thought that are implying things that are not in my head, but, as you suggested, they seem so obvious to me. The fact is that I've spent a lot of time on my feet in the Earth Room, walking and raking it, orienting myself to this monumental artwork by looking down at my feet and gazing at the earth.
AS: Your work stands free for us to project this kind of openness induced by a certain axis between brain and hand.
WMD: This is absolutely true. I think that after ten years of making thousands of drawings I exhausted my visual vocabulary in hand-to-eye, and that’s when I decided it was time to literally step into painting. I needed a reset and to gain a different control. I mean, I called it lack of control, or something much less connected to your intent.
AS: You spend more time with this work than Walter De Maria himself. So, if I follow this track, you’re the person who not only takes care of the artwork but also holds some kind of thing—impossible to organize in words—which is the truth.
WMD: : I agree. I think that, until someone else has been here 32 years, they won’t know what I know.
AS: It also keeps this monastic quality gained through a Zen relation—for instance, the way people transgress their body towards the material and how materiality carries some kind of a much deeper spiritual quality. This sensibility is also a knowledge. It's a certain kind of intelligence of the body.
WMD: I think art-making is a physical activity, and the Earth Room is a physical mass, and I’m sure that it is feeding these notions you’re tuning into.
AS: I really like when you say that Walter De Maria kept the room as an open structure, and then we continue coming in and giving meaning, adding and existing within this openness.
WMD: I think a lot of people see definition as a way of understanding. You learn the definition and you understand it. But I think what you're alluding to is that definitions can be constricting. Certainly, I am more comfortable with others where you don’t define.
AS: How’s your relationship with an institution like Dia Art Foundation? How do they react to the development of your own artistic practice within your working schedule as the caretaker of Walter De Maria’s Earth Room?
WMD: I've always felt a big responsibility. I've been put in a position that was important for me to maintain what I do here at Dia and to be presented in the best possible way. This is why I've not been so upfront about all my personal activity, but now that I have come to the end of my time here I'm sort of reflecting. In the beginning they didn’t know about it. I’ve been through eight directors here, and only when they’re about to leave the job I decide to bring them here.
AS: And does your practice continue to live on in a way that is not defined or institutionalized, even inside an institution?
WMD: If it had become institutionalized, then I also would have been, and I never wanted to be. But I think they like the idea of having this space back here; I know Walter loved it. It wasn't a secret, but it was not my nature to promote anything. The greatest accomplishment was to achieve freedom.
AS: You said you've also worked at a Clock Tower. It looks like your work is always time-related in a way that you're counterreacting to it. Because, of course, everyone gets paid by the hour, so all of us are forced to measure value with the time of work, but your work fights back the time that is imposed on and bought from us. You steal it back!
WMD: You’re right, a lot of that time is someone else’s time, and I tried to make it mine again.
AS: I’m also interested in the way your work in the Earth Room is taken as a caretaker. Caring became a more and more important word in the artworld, which I think the pandemic intensified. How did your caretaker practice change with covid-19?
WMD: Everyone’s purpose during the pandemic was to become the caretakers of themselves. You’ll probably see that reflected on the future artworks. During the pandemic, we vacated for six months to the Adirondacks, and I was lucky to be drawn deeper into art-making than I otherwise would have.
AS: What I think is that, by being in the Earth Room, you benefit every day from this slow pace, which most artists have only got to experience because of the lockdown.
WMD: Yes. If anything, my artwork was accelerating. It was hard being displaced by the pandemic mentally and physically. So I was trying to maintain myself focused and active.
AS: How do you see your future after you leave the Earth Room? How interested are you in transmitting the knowledge and experience you have to the next person? How do you see this transition?
WMD: I will make sure that I give whatever practical information I possess. But I’d like to think that whoever comes after will bring their own sensibility to it and allow themselves to be affected by the time here.
Transcribed and translated from English by Andreia Santana
Proofreading: Diogo Montenegro
Acknowledgments: Bill Dilworth, Hugo Canoilas, João Enxuto & Erica Love
New York, Spring 2021
Andreia Santana (Lisbon, 1991) lives and works in New York. Santana holds a BFA from ESAD - Caldas da Rainha, was a participant of Maumaus Independent Study Program, and is currently a fellow on the Studio Art Program of CUNY, New York. Has participated in several residencies namely, Residency Unlimited (New York), with a fellowship from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and Gasworks - Triangle Network at Hangar (Lisbon). Santana won Novo Banco Art Prize, was shortlisted for Ducato Prize (Italy), and has been awarded grants including Fulbright - Carmona e Costa Foundation, Criatório - CMP, Amadeo Souza Cardoso, and Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation - Délégation en France. Santana's work has been shown in Portugal and abroad in venues such as Serralves Contemporary Art Museum, Porto; Hangar, Lisbon; Generali Milano; Galeria Filomena Soares; Galeria Municipal do Porto; Peninsula Gallery, New York; MAAT; Cordoaria Nacional; La Nave, Madrid; Chiado 8, Lisbon; Galeria da Boavista, Lisbon; MACE - Museum of Contemporary Art, Elvas; and Monitor gallery, Lisbon.
 Berardi, Franco. The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy. 2009. Semiotext(e) pp.74
Earth Room. Dia Art Foundation. © JOHN CLIETT/DIA ART FOUNDATION.
Studio Images © Andreia Santana.